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Subarctic innovations: Startup Tour visits Arkhangelsk

The Open Innovations Startup Tour, the Skolkovo Foundation’s annual roving quest for talented tech startups, kicked off its first visit to the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk on Monday.

Left to right: Pekka Viljakainen, Arkhangelsk Region Deputy Governor Viktor Ikonnikov, Corporation for the Development of the Arkhangelsk Region director Alexei Kovalev, and Liubov Gorbatova. Photo: CDAR.

The subarctic city on the White Sea may be associated in the minds of many with traditions, such as its wooden architecture and birch handicrafts, but it also has a history of science and innovation: this is the region that produced the extraordinary 18th-century Russian scientist and polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, and was the site of one of medieval Russia’s first seaports.

The aims of the Startup Tour were presented to a young audience at the Northern State Medical University by Pekka Viljakainen, a Finnish entrepreneur and advisor to Skolkovo Foundation president Victor Vekselberg.

“This is not a science tour, or even an innovations tour,” said Viljakainen, introducing himself as a “Finnish stallion.” 

“I am not neglecting science or undervaluing it, but you already have a lot of rooms full of patents in Russia. You have hundreds of thousands of people who have a great idea, but there is no business. That’s why this is the startup tour,” he said.

The aim of the two-day event — a series of talks and master-classes given by business mentors — is to help people with an idea for a tech startup to develop that idea and make a business out of it, Viljakainen explained. 

“I will be really happy if you win a Nobel prize, but I’ll be even happier if one day you can hire 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 people for your company,” he said. 

The Startup Tour includes a pitching competition on Tuesday for budding entrepreneurs in three categories: biomedicine, industry and IT. The winners of each category will be given tickets and travel expenses to attend the Skolkovo Foundation’s annual Startup Village, a giant outdoor conference for startups and investors that will be held this year on June 6-7. But the focus of the Startup Tour is not the competition, Viljakainen said. 

“The OIST is not just a competition. The question is how to create thousands of new hi-tech jobs for this region: that is our KPI,” he said, adding that the local government has the same goal.

Participants of the Arkhangelsk stage of the Open Innovations Startup Tour. Photo: CDAR.

The Startup Tour in Arkhangelsk was organised in partnership with the Corporation for the Development of the Arkhangelsk Region and the regional government, and promising projects presented during the event will also have the chance to win support from the regional government, regardless of their placing in the pitching competition.

The Arkhangelsk stage of the Startup Tour, which this year is visiting a total of 14 cities across Russia and neighbouring countries, is also open to scientists and entrepreneurs from the nearby Vologda, Murmansk, Novgorod and Pskov regions, as well as the Nenets autonomous region and republic of Komi. A total of 124 projects were entered for the pitching competition, and more than 400 people are taking part in the overall event. 

As the home of large industrial production facilities, educational centres and logistics hubs connected to the Northern Sea Route, there are plenty of industries in the Arkhangelsk region in which new technologies in manufacturing could be applied. There is also a lot of interest in the region in innovative projects relating to the sustainable development and use of Arctic resources. 

Skolkovo's 'Finnish stallion' addresses Arkhangelsk's would-be entrepreneurs. Photo: CDAR.

Some Skolkovo residents that have already successfully built up their businesses with the support of the Skolkovo Foundation are also looking for partners in the Arkhangelsk region, said Alexander Okunev, head of Skolkovo’s department of regional development. He cited the example of ExoAtlet, the maker of innovative medical rehabilitation exoskeletons that can help disabled people to walk again. The company carried out part of its clinical research in the Arkhangelsk region.

Liubov Gorbatova, rector of the Northern State Medical University, described the ExoAtlet project as “an amazing step in rehabilitation.”

“It’s very important that new ideas  and projects should appear in the sphere of healthcare and medicine that are designed to improve treatment and prevention,” she told the audience assembled at the international university.  

“A medical university should be a platform for innovation,” she said. “I too have inventions in the attic,” she said, referring to Viljakainen’s comment about the number of unrealised Russian patents, and explaining that when she had been trying to implement her idea, it was the early ‘90s, and the conditions of the time made it simply impossible. 

“I am very glad that young people now have the chance to obtain the knowledge [required to turn their idea into a business] and the chance to develop a project that can really end up being produced,” she said.

The mentoring sessions being held in Arkhangelsk include a talk on how to make use of regional and federal development institutes. Now in its fifth year, the Startup Tour is organised in partnership with the state investment vehicle Russian Venture Capital, as well as the Generation S accelerator, Rusnano and the Foundation for the Promotion of Innovations, which opened a representative office in the region in October last year.

Other sessions include how to launch and develop a successful startup, where to get investment for a project, and an event in which participants can obtain an express assessment of their business idea.